Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Scandal has been doing better in the ratings, but it's finishing No. 2 in the ratings for the night in the 18-49 demographic (I'm SO happy to be back in this demographic, since it felt like once I left my mid-30s, no one wanted to hear a dang thing I had to say.) Sure, finishing second for the night is pretty decent, but I'd like to quote the immortal Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights: "If you're not first, you're last!" Though it was the World Series, the show wasn't helped as much as it might have hoped with the appearance of Lisa Kudrow - it dropped to a 3.0 rating.
Sure, network executives are somewhat more forgiving than racecar people, but not by much. They'll definitely be interested in seeing how the show does now that the World Series has ended. Kudrow wasn't enough of a draw to get more people to watch the show, apparently. The question is - why?
One theory is, despite Friends being re-run on at least one channel every hour (I'm serious here: Scroll through your channel listings. There's going to be a showing on SOMEWHERE. Thank goodness for syndication, huh?), the public just doesn't have the same fondness. Courtney Cox has had a bit of success on Cougar Town, but it took a cable network to salvage it. Matthew Perry has gone through not one but two shows. Jennifer Aniston is still seeking making movies, but not particularly good ones. (OK, Horribe Bosses was pretty decent.) So it stands to reason that Kudrow might not have the drawing power that she did a decade or so ago. The public's memory is a short-lived one.
Kerry Washington has done a great job and is becoming a star in her own right (having done a fantastic job hosting Saturday Night Live last weekend, including a hilarious sketch about the show's purported problems finding African-American women for their cast) and the fact that it was created by Shonda Rhimes works in its favor. Maybe people are still getting used to the fact that it's no longer following Grey's Anatomy anymore. It just feels like it could be doing even better than it is.
Baseball is over now. The true test will be on this Thursday. It's facing a struggling Elementary and Parenthood. It may keep its good numbers, but they'll have to get even higher to avoid the scandal of possible cancellation. Maybe they can get Will Ferrell to play Ricky Bobby on the show.